A secret memo indicates that SF cops may be working as FBI spies — with no local oversight
As the ACLU and Asian Law Caucus noted in a December 2010 letter to Cdr. Daniel Mahoney: "That scandal was not just about the fact that peaceful organizations and individuals were being unlawfully spied upon and their private information sold to foreign governments, but that the guidelines adopted in 1990 had never been fully implemented by SFPD. No officers had been trained on the new guidelines and no meaningful audit had ever been implemented."
Over the years, the commission has tried to keep tabs on police intelligence and prevent more spy scandals. The general order mandates that local police officials have to request general authority from a commanding officer and the chief to investigate any activity that comes under First Amendment protections — and must specify in the request what the facts are that give rise to this suspicion of criminal activity. The order also states that the chief can't approve any request that doesn't include evidence of possible criminal activity.
Those requests are reviewed monthly by the Police Commission and there are annual audits of the SFPD files to monitor compliance — so the notion that the local cops are joining the FBI spy squad without commission oversight is more than a little disturbing.
Officials with the FBI and SFPD are doing their best to reassure the local community that there's nothing to worry about. But so far their replies seem to duck questions about whether FBI guidelines trump local policies. For example, the MOU states that "when there is a conflict, [task force members] are held to the standard that provides the greatest organizational benefit."
We asked Mahoney to clarify: does that mean the local cops could be held to the FBI's standards?
"The San Francisco Police Officer(s) who are assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force always have and continue to be required to follow all SFPD's policies and procedures," Mahoney replied in a statement.
That's confusing; do they follow SFPD policies, or obey the MOU?
We asked FBI special agent-in-charge Stephanie Douglas whether SFPD officers are involved in surveillance and "assessments" (that FBI code word for creating spy files on individuals and groups) and whether they are identifying as SFPD or FBI officers.
"The FBI only initiates investigations on allegations of criminal wrongdoing or threats to our national security," Douglas replied April 21. "Our investigations are conducted in compliance with the Constitution, the laws of the United States, the Attorney General Guidelines, the Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide, and all other FBI policies."
Okay, that's typical FBI-speak. Here's more: "The JTTF is a task force comprised of FBI special agents, agents from other federal agencies, and local police officers who have been officially deputized as federal task force officers (TFOs) who have the power and authority of a federal agent. Because all JTTF TFOs are actually de facto federal agents, they are required to operate under federal laws and policies when involved in a JTTF case."
So the cops are actually feds. But wait: "Our standard JTTF MOU recognizes, however, that the JTTF TFOs do wear two hats, as it were, and directs JTTF TFOs to follow his or her own agency's policy when it is stricter than the FBI policy under certain circumstances," Douglas concluded.
Again: not exactly clear, and not exactly reassuring.
"At some point they need to say whether SFPD officers are engaged in assessments," Crew said.
These questions have spurred the Police Commission and Human Rights Commission to schedule a joint hearing in May to discuss what the document means, why SFPD never alerted the civilian oversight authorities, and whether a clarifying addendum can be tacked onto the agreement.
SPY FOR US OR LEAVE
The concerns are likely to be intensified by recent developments in Portland, Ore.